Carbs Restake Their Claim

The healthfulness of whole grains has redeemed the image of some carbohydrates. However, processors may need to police themselves when it comes to truth in labeling.

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By John K. Ashby, Contributing Editor

Carbs have turned the corner and are perceived as OK again, especially in the form of whole grains. The carbohydrate-bashing craze put a dent in the consumption of carbohydrates in all forms, grain-based carbohydrates especially. This extreme nutrition fad had to fade eventually, and it was a safe bet the peak was reached when billboards appeared touting zero-carb vodka – drink all you want, I guess, “No Net Carbs!” The only way for this trend to have continued would be for contractors to tout zero-carb bricks. At least that claim would be correct.

Even as interest in low-carb diets and low-carb products is waning, interest in the nutrition benefits of whole-grain products is skyrocketing. Whole grains are just carbohydrates in a different form – a form we are now realizing can have a huge health and wellness impact on consumers. Carbohydrates are clearly good for you.

What is a grain?

Unless you are a cereal chemist, odds are you might have a bit of confusion over the word “grain.” If you are a cereal chemist, then you are probably involved in frequent arguments over the finer points of the definition of “grain.” The catch-all term “grains” generally includes:

  • Cereals - “The seeds of grasses; each consisting of a single kernel (monocotyledon), including, wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, oats, millet, rye, triticale, teff, wild rice and Emmer.” (Dennis T. Gordon, Ph.D., professor of cereal science, North Dakota State University, Fargo, N.D.)

  • Pseudo-cereals (dicotyledons) such as amaranth, buckwheat, flax and quinoa.

  • Legumes, such as soy, pulses et al.
The whole grain challenge

The interest in whole grains is expanding exponentially in the food industry. This trend toward whole grains is, in fact, philosophically consistent with the other major defining trend in the food industry, the trend towards natural and organic foods. This whole-grain approach may be the catalyst that allows the baking industry to catch up with the huge strides achieved over the last few years in the produce, canned foods and dairy products.

In late September, General Mills announced that it was reformulating its entire portfolio of Big G breakfast cereals – including Lucky Charms – to be either a “Good” or “Excellent” source of whole grain.
Even Lucky Charms, with those sugary little marshmallows, is improving its nutritional delivery by going whole grain. In fact, General Mills is converting its entire cereal line to whole grain. This is an example of the carbohydrate industry putting more effort behind providing the best nutrition for the dollar instead of just the most calories for the dollar. In the case of these General Mills cereals, converting them to whole grain was organoleptically relatively easy. Wheaties and Cheerios are already whole grain. General Mills had a head start in that consumers were accustomed to the whole grain taste being a part of these cereals.

For other bakery/carbohydrate products, converting to whole grain is more challenging from the perspective of products maintaining their same level of consumer appeal. Whole grains, especially wheat, add color and flavor to the finished product, in addition to altering the texture. It should come as no surprise that the whole-grain phenomenon — specifically, ingredients and techniques helping bakers deal with whole grains — was such a dominant issue at the recent American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC) convention in San Diego. Many of the presentations at the AACC involved tools and techniques to overcome processing, rising and shelf-life issues abounding in whole-grain applications.

The whole-grain health claim

The evidence of the health benefits of consuming whole grains over refined grains is continuing to mount. Finally, on December 9, 2003, a health claim was approved for whole-grain foods. This is one of only 14 available, legal food health claims. The Authoritative Statement Claim allowed on whole-grain foods reads, “Diets rich in whole-grain foods and other plant foods, and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.”

Health claims sell foods, and this one relates to both cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. This is a powerful claim consumers respond to. People in the food business know this and go to great lengths to meet the requirements allowing the use of health claims on our foods. But health claims also constrain the formulation of foods. What are the requirements that must be met to use this claim?

  • The food must contain at least 51 percent whole-grain ingredients.

  • There must be at least 5.6 percent dietary fiber content from whole grains.

  • The food must meet the regulatory definitions for “low saturated fat.” This means it must have less than one gram of saturated fat per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC).

  • The food must be “low cholesterol” (less than 20 mg cholesterol per RACC).
    There must be fewer than 6.5 grams total fat, and 0.5g or less trans fat per RACC.

  • Labeling must include quantitative trans fat information.
Some difficulties arise in the application of the above rules. The biggest issue is that there is no consensus on what a whole grain is. In this vacuum, the AACC endorsed the following definition: “Whole grains shall consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in substantially the same proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis.”

This definition is good enough for now, but some suggest it allows a bit too much leeway in determining exactly what “substantially the same proportions” means. Expect this boundary to be pushed – in some cases too far, perhaps requiring occasional governmental suggestion of rewording. Other major issues are that the fiber requirement pretty much means only wheat has a chance of complying, and the amount of water in the product has to be part of the calculation, which affects the end result. (See Wellness Foods, Jan/Feb 2004, “The grain, the whole grain, and nothing but the grain” for a more specific discussion of some of these issues.)

More labeling down the pike

The USDA has a petition before it to allow additional whole-grain label claims to include:

  • “Excellent Source” – 16 grams of whole grains per serving.
  • “Made With” – less than 8 grams of whole grains per serving.
This last one is raising controversy due to potential for abuse. The temptation is there to add 0.1 gram of a whole grain. then apply the “Made With” label implying some significant level of whole grain in the product. As worded, zero grams of anything whole grain still qualifies, as such a product would have “less than 8 grams of whole grains per serving.”

Grains have many different forms, from whole to highly refined. Each has a place in the diet, with specific nutritional consequences. Ignore this issue at your peril. The challenge to the grain foods industry is to fit the varying products nutritional aspects to the full set of consumers’ interests, nutritional, financial and organoleptic. In the meantime, the new whole grain health claims plus rising consumer interest equal a terrific boon for the grain industry.

About the Author
John K. Ashby is General Manager - Ingredients, for California Natural Products, a manufacturer of rice ingredients for the food industry, and focuses on the nutritional, nutraceutical, functional and organic food markets.
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